Backing up your Windows to an external drive can be rather helpful. Here’s how you can do it in Windows 11.
When making some changes to your PC or if you have some crucial data and can’t afford to lose any of it, backing up your computer to a secure storage source such as an external hard drive can be extremely helpful.
Besides, Windows is more prone to malware attacks, hardware failure, upgrade problems, file corruption, and other issues, and Windows 11 is no exception. So, knowing how to backup your system to an external drive or cloud storage is essential.
In case, your system fails to boot up or files get corrupted or lost, you can use the backups you have created to restore your computer. There are several ways to backup your Windows 11 to an external USB hard drive.
In this article, we will show you how to create a system image backup, automatic backup, file and folder backup, and OneDrive backup on Windows 11.
Types of Backups
In Windows 11, you can make two different types of backups:
- Full Backup: Full backup saves everything on your primary drive (Windows drive) including everything from the Windows installation files, drivers, apps, settings, and personal files. You can take a full backup of your Windows 11 using a system image, wbAdmin command-line tool, or a third-party tool.
- Partial Backup: Partial backup is taken when you only want to save important files and folders to an external drive or a cloud service. You can take partial backup using the backup and restore feature, file history, OneDrive, copy-paste, and third-party tools.
How to Create System Image Backup using Backup and Restore Feature
You can use the Backup and Restore feature to create a system image of the entire system and files to an external hard drive or USB storage. A system image is a full backup of your Windows drive which includes Windows installation, system settings, apps, and user files. Creating a system image means creating an .ISO file or image of all the important files and drivers in your system which can be used to recover your system anytime.
Let us see how to use the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) feature to create a system image:
First, open the Start menu, search for ‘Control Panel’ in the search bar and open the top result.
In the Control Panel window, click on ‘System and Security’ if the settings are viewed as a category.
Next, click on ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ on the right pane of the next window.
Alternatively, if the settings are viewed as ‘Large Icons’ or ‘Small Icons’, simply select the ‘Back up and Restore (Windows 7)’.
As the name indicates, the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) is an old feature present in Windows since Windows 7. You should know this feature is not currently maintained by Microsoft, which means it can be discontinued in future releases.
On the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) window, click the ‘Create a system image’ option from the left navigation pane.
The System image can be saved on an external drive or any internal drive (secondary drive) other than the system drive.
Next, select the ‘On a hard disk’ option and choose a hard drive from the drop-down menu. Then, click ‘Next’.
If you want to back to your system on a network drive or DVD, select either of the other two options and choose a backup destination.
If the selected drive doesn’t have enough space to store the backup, you will see a warning below the drop-down. So, make sure to select a drive that has enough free space or delete unnecessary files to make some space on the selected drive.
By default, System (C:) drive, Windows Recovery Environment, and EFI System Partition drive will be selected. However, you can also include any additional drive to the backup image and click ‘Next’.
In the next window, select the ‘Start Backup’ button.
Windows will start the backup process immediately. It will take hours to finish depending on the size of your system. If you want to cancel the backup process, click the ‘Stop Backup’ button.
You can still continue to use your computer while the backup process is going on, it will not affect your open apps and files. Once the backup process is complete, click ‘OK’ to close the dialog box.
If you see a prompt to create a system repair disc, you can skip this option by clicking ‘NO’ because you can use Windows 11 bootable media or Advanced Startup to access the Windows Recovery Environment to restore the backup. Besides, you will need to insert a blank CD or DVD into your system to create a system repair disc.
Once you complete the steps, a full backup of the Windows 11 device will be created with the installation files, settings, applications, and personal files.
After the backup is created, you will see a folder named ‘WindowsImageBackup’ in the backup external drive. Make sure not to modify or delete it, because you will need it to restore the backup in the future.
Set up Automatic Backup of Windows 11 to External Hard Drive
The Backup and Restore feature offers another option called the ‘Set up Backup’ option which allows you to backup data files saved in libraries, desktops, folders, and default Windows folders. You can also set up your files to automatically backup on regular basis. With this option, you can choose whether you want to backup your entire system or only select files and folders. Follow these steps to set up automatic backup on Windows 11.
First, connect an external drive and make sure there’s enough space to back up your files. Then, open Control Panel and select ‘System and Security’.
Then, select the ‘Back and Restore (Windows 7)’ option on the right.
When the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) control panel appears, click the ‘Set up Backup’ option under the Backup section.
However, if you already configured a backup drive on your computer, this ‘Set up Backup’ option won’t appear. In that case, click the ‘Change Settings’ option under the Backup section.
Either way, it will open the ‘Set up backup’ control applet. Here, select your backup destination from the list of drives and click ‘Next’.
Try to avoid the drives that show either or both of these warning messages.
However, if you don’t plan on including the system image as part of the backup and you have enough space to store the other files you want to backup, you can ignore the “This drive does not have enough space to store a system image” message and select that drive anyway. If you see the “This drive is on the same physical disk as your system drive” message, it means you won’t be to recover your files if the whole hard disk gets corrupted or damaged. If you want to continue anyway, select that drive and click ‘Next’.
On the next screen, under ‘What do you want to back up?’, you will see two options: Let Windows choose (recommended) and Let me choose.
Let Windows choose: If you are only trying to back up your Windows 11 operating system and library files, you can just select the ‘Let Windows choose (recommended)’ option and click ‘Next’. This backup will include files such as those saved in libraries, desktop files, and default Windows files and folders (System Image).
On the next window, review your backup settings, and click the ‘Save settings and exit’ button.
Let me choose: If you want to choose what to include and what not to include in your backup including the system image, you can select the ‘Let me choose’ option and click ‘Next’.
Next, check the boxes of the items (folders, directories, and drives) you want to include in the backup. You can click the small arrow button to view all the folders under a directory.
If you want to include the system image of drives: EFI System Partition (C:), Windows Recovery Environment, then leave this option checked. If not, uncheck this option.
Next, review the folder and directories you have included as well as the backup settings. You can also set up the schedule for regular backup, by clicking the ‘Change schedule’ setting link.
On the next window, first, select the ‘Run backup on a schedule (recommended)’ option. From the ‘How often:’ drop-down menu, choose how often you want to save the copies of your files (backup): ‘Daily’, ‘Weekly’, or ‘Monthly’.
If you select Monthly, you have to select a date from the ‘What day’. If you choose ‘Weekly’ (recommended), you have to pick a day of the week. Then, choose a time from the ‘What time’ drop-down. After setting up the schedule, click ‘OK’ to save the changes.
Finally, on the ‘Set up Backup’ window, click the ‘Save settings and exit’ button.
Windows will automatically start the backup process. If not, click the ‘Backup now’ option to begin the process.
It will take a while to complete, depending on the size of your files.
In some older builds of Windows 11, you can also access the File History feature right from the Windows settings by going to System > Storage > Advanced storage settings > Backup options.
Backup Files to OneDrive Cloud
The easiest way to backup files in Windows 11 is using Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud account. OneDrive lets you automatically backup your important files, photos, documents, and videos to the cloud and access them from any device, anywhere.
When you log in to OneDrive with your free Microsoft Account, you will get 5GB of free storage space. If you need more storage (enough to save the entire system and more), you must upgrade to a Microsoft 365 subscription which costs about $1.99 a month and it comes with 1 TB of storage space. If you don’t have a Microsoft account, go to this link to create one.
To automatically backup your files on Windows 11 using OneDrive, follow these instructions:
Click the Start button and select ‘Settings’ from the Start menu or you can use the Windows+ I shortcut.
In the Settings app, click on ‘Accounts’ from the menu on the left. Then, scroll down the right pane and select ‘Windows backup’ under the Account settings.
Next, enable the ‘Remember my preferences’ toggle.
Then, click on the ‘Set up syncing’ button next to the OneDrive folder syncing.
When the Microsoft OneDrive dialog window opens, enter your Microsoft email address in the text field below and click ‘Sign in’.
On the next window, enter the password and click ‘Sign in’ again.
The next window will show you the default OneDrive folder. If you wish to change the OneDrive folder, click the ‘Change location’ link in the lower right corner. Then, click ‘Next’.
Now, choose the folders you want to sync to OneDrive by clicking on the folders. All the existing files in these folders will be backed up and all the new files you add to these folders will also be backed up to OneDrive. Finally, click the ‘Start backup’ button.
Backup Windows 11 Files to External Drive using File History
If you don’t want to pay for OneDrive’s extra storage or you want to save files offline, you can use another Windows 11 built-in feature called File History which allows you to automatically backup your personal files to an External drive. With the File History feature, you can also choose how often you want to save copies of the files and how long you want to keep the saved versions of the files. Here’s how you can set up and use File History in Windows 11:
First, click the Search icon in the taskbar and type ‘File History’. Then, select the result for it.
Alternatively, you can navigate to Control Panel > System and Security > File History.
When the File History control panel opens, you will see that it already searched for compatible drives connected to your computer and chose a drive as the File History drive (If a compatible drive is connected).
If you don’t want to use the selected drive or if a drive is not selected, you can choose one by clicking the ‘Select drive’ setting from the left menu.
On the next window, select a drive you wish to use and click ‘OK’.
If you see a prompt asking “Do you want to move your existing files, too?”, click ‘Yes’ if you want to move the already copied files from the previously chosen drive to the new drive. Otherwise, select ‘No’.
Once you select the drive, File History will start to save files in the selected driver under the folder named ‘FileHistory’.
Automatic Back up On/Off
File History automatically backs up every folder you’ve selected periodically. However, you can also stop File History from backing up your files automatically so that you can manually backup the files whenever you feel necessary. You can do that by clicking the ‘Turn off’ button. To enable the automatic backup, click the ‘Turn on’ button.
By default, File History saves copies of files from libraries, your desktop, contacts, and favorites. However, you can exclude the folders you don’t want in the backup. File History in Windows 10 used to have a list of folders you can remove, but in Windows 11 you have to manually add the folder you want to exclude. Here’s how you can do that:
To exclude folders from the File History backup, click the ‘Exclude folders’ setting from the left panel.
On the next window, click the ‘Add’ button at the bottom left corner.
Then, navigate to the folders you want to exclude, select them and click the ‘Select Folder’ button.
Repeat the steps until you have added all the folders you want to remove to the ‘Exclude from File History’ box. Then, click ‘Save changes’.
Change Backup Frequency
You can also set up how often you want your files to be backed up and how long you want to keep them. Here’s how you can change the backup frequency in File History:
In the File History window, click on ‘Advanced settings’ on the left sidebar.
On the Advanced settings page, under the Versions section, open the drop-down menu next to ‘Save copies of files’ and choose how often you want to save copies of your files (backup your files) to an external drive.
Next, use the drop-down menu next to ‘Keep saved versions’ to choose how long you want to keep the saved versions of the file.
If you want to delete the old version of the files, click the ‘Clean up version’ just below the drop-down menus. Then, choose a time period before which you want to remove old versions of files and folders.
After that, click the ‘Clean up’ button.
When finished, click ‘Save Changes’ at the bottom.
If your files get lost or corrupted, you can easily restore them from your external drive using File History.
To do that, go back to the File History page in Control Panel and click the ‘Restore personal files’ setting on your left.
Here, you will see a list of backed-up folders and files with a few media controls at the bottom. You can scroll through the different versions of your files and folders using the forward and backward buttons. Each version will have a time and date stamp at the top.
Once you find the files you want to restore, select them, and then click the ‘Restore’ button (the Green button).
When restoring a file, if the original file is still in the original location, the tool will ask if you want to replace the file, skip the file, or compare both files. For that, you can choose accordingly. However, if the original file is not available in the location, File History will automatically restore the file to its previous location.
Backup Windows 11 to an External Drive using wbAdmin Command Tool
You can also create a full backup of Windows 11 using a built-in command-line tool called ‘wbAdmin’. Follow these instructions to run the wbAdmin command-line tool in the command prompt.
Click the Start button or search icon in the taskbar, type ‘cmd’, and select ‘Run as administrator’ for the top result.
Once Command Prompt opens with administrative privileges, type the following command and hit Enter:
wbAdmin start backup -backupTarget:E: -include:C: -allCritical -quiet
In the above command, replace
E: with the drive letter of the external drive you want to use for the backup. And
C: represents the operating system drive.
If you want to back up the system drive and other drives connected to your device, use the below command instead:
wbAdmin start backup -backupTarget:E: -include:C:,E:,G: -allCritical -quiet
In the above command, replace
:C:,E:,G: with the drive letter of the connected drives, you want to backup. Make sure to add a comma (,) between each drive you want to include in the backup.
Create a Recovery Drive on External Drive
Windows 11 allows you to create a recovery drive on an external drive like a DVD or USB drive which you can use to re-install your Windows 11 in case of a hardware failure or when your PC won’t start.
Follow these steps to create a Recovery drive on Windows 11:
First, connect a USB drive or insert a DVD into your computer with at least 16GB of storage space. Then, open Control Panel and change the ‘View by’ option to ‘Large icons’ or ‘Small icons’. Then, select ‘Recovery’ from the list of settings.
In the Recovery control panel, click the ‘Create a recovery drive’ setting under the Advanced recovery tools section.
Alternatively, you can type ‘Recovery Drive’ in the Windows search and open the top result.
When the Recovery Drive window opens, check the box next to ‘Back up system files to the recovery drive’, then click ‘Next’.
The tool will scan for compatible drives connected to your computer and show you the list of drives you can use. Select the drive you want to use as a recovery drive and click ‘Next’.
On the next screen, you will see a warning that everything in the selected drive will be deleted to create a recovery drive. So, make sure there are no important files in the selected USB drive. If you think you selected the wrong drive, click the arrow button at the top left corner to go back to the drive selection screen.
Then, click the ‘Create’ button to format the drive and create a recovery drive.
Manually Backup using Copy And Paste
Another easy way to backup files on Windows 11 is to manually copy and paste the files. If you only have a few certain files and folders that you want to backup, you can easily copy them directly to an external hard drive.
First, connect an external hard disk to your PC. Then, simply click and drag the desired files to the external drive. Or, select the files and press Ctrl+C to copy them to the clipboard. Then, go to the external drive and press Ctrl+V to paste them.
Restore Files from Backup using the Backup and Restore feature
If you backed up files using the backup and restore feature, you can restore them when your data is lost or damaged.
Here’s how you can restore lost or damaged files from the backup using the Backup and Restore feature (Windows 7):
Open Control Panel and click on ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ settings. If the control panel is viewed as a category, go to ‘System and Security’ and select the ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ setting.
Under the Restore section, click the ‘Restore all users’ files’ setting.
This will launch the Restore Files dialog window. Here, you can search your backup for files and folders you want to restore.
Click the ‘Choose a different date’ settings link to retore files to their version backed up on a specific date and time.
From the ‘Show backups’ drop-down, you can choose to show backups on last week, last month, last 6 months, last 12 months, or all time.
Next, choose the time and date on which the backup was made, and click ‘OK’.
You can click the Search button to search for files saved on your PC.
In the Search for field, type the entire or part of the filename you want to search for, and click ‘Search’.
The tool will search for the filename and list all the partially matched and fully matched files. Scroll down the list and select the files you want to recover by checking boxes next to the file names. After selecting the files, click ‘OK’.
You can also search the backups for the files by clicking the ‘Browse for files’ button.
The backup of each drive will be in separate folders. Navigate through your backup, find the files you want to recover and select them. You can select as many files as you want. Then, click the ‘Add files’ button to add the files to the list of files you want to recover.
If you want to restore entire folders from the backups, click the ‘Browse for folders’ button instead, in the Restore Files dialog window.
Then, browse through the backup and select the folders and drives you want to restore, and then click ‘Add folder’.
All the added files and folders you want to restore will be listed here. If you want to remove an added file, select the file, and click ‘Remove’.
Once you added all the files and folders, click ‘Next’.
On the next screen, select the ‘In the original location’ radio button if you want to restore files in the original location, and click ‘Restore’.
Or, if you want to restore files in a specific location, select the ‘In the following location’ radio button, and click ‘Browse’.
Now, navigate to the destination folder where you want to restore the files, and click ‘OK’.
Make sure the ‘Restore the files to their original subfolders’ option is selected if you wish to restore the files to their original subfolders. Finally, click ‘Restore’ to start the file restoration process.
Backup Windows 11 To External Drive via Third-party Tool
There are several third-party applications that can help you backup your Windows 11 system and your files. They can also allow you to auto backup your files to clouds, external hard drives, and network storage devices effortlessly.
Here are some of the free backup and restore tools available for Windows 11:
Among these, AOMEI Backupper Standard is the best tool that can backup Windows, disk, files, folders, and partitions. You can download and install the software using the above download link.
Once the app is installed, plug in the external hard drive and open the AOMEI Backupper Standard tool. Then, go to the ‘Backup’ tab on the left panel.
As you can see, here you have options to back up the system, disk, file/folders, and partition. To backup Windows 11 to an external drive, click on the ‘System Backup’ option.
This backup will include System (C:) drive, Windows Recovery Environment, and the EFI System Partition drive. Now, select an external hard drive as the destination drive, and click ‘Start Backup’.
It will take a while depending upon the size of your system.
To restore backups from AOMEI Backupper, follow these steps:
On the AOMEI Backupper standard tool, go to the ‘Home tab and locate the backup you want to restore. Then, click on the three-line button of the task and select ‘Restore’.
Next, select the files and folders that you want to restore, and click ‘Next’.
Then, choose whether you want to restore the file to its original location or a new location, and then click ‘Start Restore’.
Restore Window 11 from a Backup
If your system runs into some issue or your system can’t boot, you can use the system image created using the Backup and Restore tool to easily restore your machine.
Here’s how you restore your Windows 11 PC using the system image:
You need to boot your system into Windows Recovery Environment to start the system restore process. To do that, open Windows Settings (Win+I), then make sure the ‘System’ tab has been selected from the left sidebar. Then, scroll down and click on the ‘Recovery’ tile on the right.
Under Recovery options, click ‘Restart now’ next to the Advanced startup tile.
If your Windows PC is not booting up or you can’t access the settings, you can either use a Windows 11 bootable USB or DVD to enter the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE). When the Windows Install now screen appears, click the ‘Repair your computer’ option at the bottom.
Or, first, shut down your PC or turn off your PC and then press the power button to turn on the system. And just when Windows starts loading, press and hold the power button to force shutdown your PC.
Repeat these steps two or three times and the fourth time let Windows load normally. It will automatically boot into Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE).
When the Windows Recovery Environment appears, click the ‘Troubleshoot’ tile under the Choose an option screen.
On the next screen, click ‘Advanced options’.
On the Advanced options screen, if you see the ‘System Image Recovery’ tile, click on it. Or, click on the ‘See more recovery options’ setting at the bottom of the screen.
On the next screen, click on the ‘System Image Recovery’ tile to proceed.
The Re-image your computer tool will open and automatically detect the backup file (System image) on your computer. Now, select the ‘Use the latest available system image’ option and click ‘Next’.
If you have more than one backup image on your PC, you can choose the ‘Select a system image’ option and then pick the specific backup by date and time from the next screen.
In case, you are restoring the system image on a new drive, select the ‘Format and repartition disks’ option to delete any existing partitions and reformat all the data on the computer. You can use the ‘Exclude disks’ option to prevent formatting the other drives that may contain data.
However, if the option is greyed out, click on the ‘Install drivers’ option to install the drivers for the disks you are restoring.
If you are restoring the Windows to the same drive, you can just click on the ‘Next’ button to continue.
At last, click on the ‘Finish’ button and then click ‘Yes’ on the final restore warning dialog box to start the restore process.
Once the restoration process starts, make sure not to interrupt it. After the restoration process is complete, you will be prompted to restart your PC. You can then click the ‘Restart’ button to restart your computer.
That’s it. This guide shows you a number of ways you can backup (and restore) your Windows 11 PC. You can choose the one that best suits your purpose.